11/08/2002 12:00AM

Weekend's action on division matchups


LAS VEGAS - Divisional battles have always been important in the NFL. The results of head-to-head games is the first tiebreaking criteria for playoff berths, followed by divisional records. And there's also the bragging rights for beating a hated rival.

But starting this year, with realignment, each team plays only six divisional games, so each one takes on greater significance.

Half of this weekend's games are intradivisional. The biggest one is Monday night, when the Raiders (4-4) visit the Broncos (6-2) in an AFC West clash. The Raiders have dropped four straight and need a win to get back in the playoff hunt.

Sunday night's prime-time game is also critical for the Jets (3-5), who have to beat the Dolphins (5-3) to have any chance of catching them in the AFC East.

But even games between contenders and also-rans are still near-must wins for the favorites because of potential tiebreaker situations:

* The Titans have to dispose of the Texans to keep pace with the Colts in the AFC South.

* The Saints need to put the Panthers out of their misery in the NFC South.

* The Cardinals must do the same against the Seahawks in the NFC West if they are going to hold off the Rams for a wild-card spot.

* The Ravens have to beat the Bengals in the AFC North or they can give up any playoff hopes.

* The Packers don't need to beat the Lions as far as the NFC North is concerned - even if they lose, the Pack will have a three-game lead with seven games to play - but they do need it to stay in the lead for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Three of my bankroll plays are on those divisional matchups, including my best bet.

Dolphins (+3) at Jets

This is all about line value. The Dolphins were a 6-point home favorite when these two teams met on Sept. 22. They ended an eight-game losing streak to the Jets with a 30-3 rout. There's no reason the line should be 9 points different for this game. I had my eyes on this matchup a week ago, and even though I didn't have a play on the Jets-Chargers game last week, I was glad to see the Jets whip the Chargers, 44-13, in a game where everything went their way. That certainly had an impact on the line for this game, which some books made pick-em before the Dolphins played Monday night. It didn't bother me to see the Packers beat the Dolphins, 24-10, and give me some added line value. As of Friday, it looked like Miami quarterback Ray Lucas would be cleared to start against his former team, but even if the Dolphins have to use Sage Rosenfels, he is better than he showed in a short stint last week. The three points are a gift and shouldn't be needed.

PLAY: Dolphins for 2 units.

Falcons (+5 1/2) at Steelers

Both teams are playing well after bad starts. Michael Vick continues to get all the headlines, but the Falcons' defense has held opponents under 20 points in six of their eight games. The Steelers' pass defense has struggled all season, and Vick's scrambling ability - and the respect that defenses have to give it - buys more time for his receivers to get open deep. One or two big plays should get the Falcons the upset in a low-scoring battle.

PLAY: Falcons for 1 unit, and under 43 points for 1 unit.

Texans (+10) at Titans

The Titans, even when they are playing well, are not a good team to lay points with, evidenced by the fact they are 2-6-1 against the spread as a home favorite going back to the start of last season. They like to get a lead and then run Eddie George the rest of the way. The Texans are capable of the outright upset, like the one they pulled two weeks ago at Jacksonville, but even if the Texans don't win, the Titans' 28th-ranked pass defense should allow the Texans to get the backdoor cover as a double-digit dog.

PLAY: Texans for 1 unit.

Patriots (-3 1/2) at Bears

In week 3, the Bears were 2-0 and leading the Saints, 20-0. They lost 29-23 and haven't recovered, losing six straight. The Patriots were on the skids, too, but bounced back with a convincing 38-7 win at Buffalo last week. The Bears have to turn to turnover/injury-prone QB Chris Chandler, and if he hasn't had success against the Lions and Vikings in recent weeks, what chance does he have against the Pats?

I'm not worried about going against the home dog here - the Bears' 6-point loss as 6 1/2-point underdogs last week against the Eagles was their only cover in four games at their temporary "home" in Champaign, Ill.

PLAY: Patriots for 1 unit.

Raiders (+5) at Broncos

The Raiders are in a must-win situation. If they lose, they will be three games behind the Broncos. After being 5-1 with the over to start the season, the Raiders' last two games have gone under. This should play out the same way as the Raiders' 23-20 loss to the 49ers last week: two teams looking to establish the run and then trying to attack downfield. The week before that, the Raiders lost a similar game 20-10 at Kansas City. This battle will come down to a late field goal, which wins my wager either way.

PLAY: Raiders for 1 unit, and under 46 1/2 for 1 unit.

Season record: 35-43-2 for a net loss of 11.9 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1).